Thirty years on, UNHCR seeks full integration for Congolese refugees in Angola

Thousands of Congolese refugees who fled in the 1970s to Angola from what was then Zaire, are having to decide whether to officially integrate or go home to the now Democratic Republic of the Congo - a country which many of them have never stepped foot in.

Congolese refugees living in a village on the outskirts of Moxico, in eastern Angola, are virtually indistinguishable from their Angolan neighbours.   © UNHCR/J.Redden

VIANA CAMP, Angola, March 21 (UNHCR) - Ditenda Hawej fled the violence triggered by a secessionist movement in the Congolese province of Katanga in what used to be Zaire and made his way through the African bush into Angola. Nearly 30 years later he, and thousands like him, are still here.

"There were a lot of possibilities in Congo before 1977, but that is all gone," said the 67-year-old retired teacher. "I left seven children in Congo - they were living in another area and there was no possibility to get them - and I came with just four.

"I never saw them again. I brought only the youngest ones with me," he said in Viana Camp which is home to nearly 7,000 Congolese who have been in Angola so long they are almost indistinguishable from their Angolan neighbours. "One daughter married an Angolan, so they are Angolan. Another son married a refugee woman so they feel more Congolese."

Last year schools in this camp, which is on the edge of the capital Luanda, became part of the state school system. UNHCR used to support these schools for Congolese refugees, but now they are made up of a mix of refugees and Angolans who were driven from their homes elsewhere in the country by war. The children blend seamlessly despite their different nationalities.

After three decades, the Congolese refugees are largely integrated. In a country where half the population is under the age of 15, the vast majority of Congolese have never seen their homeland, now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They speak Portuguese like the Angolans around them, while only the older refugees know the French they spoke in the DRC.

With the original reason for their flight long resolved, but with few wishing to return to a country where instability continues, UNHCR is seeking to finally end their ambiguous status. The UN refugee agency wants to see the refugees offered a choice of repatriation or full integration in Angola.

It has found a sympathetic audience in the government of Angola, which is trying to bring order and modernise after nearly three decades of war which paralyzed progress.

"During this period, these people have tried hard and consciously to adapt themselves into the local environment, to understand and respect our cultures and ways of life, and the Migration Service proposes to do everything so that their local integration becomes a fact in the Republic of Angola," the Immigration and Refugee Department of the Ministry of the Interior said in a statement in February.

As a result, the government department said it has presented a draft for an urgently needed new refugee law that will give "the refugees identification as temporary or permanent foreign residents."

The exact number of Congolese refugees in Angola is unknown. The official estimate is nearly 14,000, but there has never been a formal registration. Births and deaths commonly go unrecorded. And pockets of Congolese whose arrival in remote provincial locations went unnoticed by either UNHCR or the government have surfaced only since Angola's civil war ended in 2002.

Many of the refugees are themselves ambivalent about what they want, fearing that any change in their status after decades in Angola will leave them in a worse position than now. Some in Luanda, the teeming capital with possibly a third of the country's 16 million people, are reluctant to choose between repatriation and legal integration.

But increasingly those refugees near the centre of Angola's rapidly growing economy are feeling the disadvantages of their ambiguous status and the need for formal integration. Without documentation travel is difficult or impossible, even inside the country. Their children attend elementary schools but find the doors to higher education closed. While they officially have the right to work, in practice employers sometimes refuse to hire them.

"There is no problem for cultural integration," Kopel Musengele, the Congolese coordinator for the Community Centre for Refugee Integration, said at his office in Luanda. "The problem is legal integration."

"Many people in Angola don't know there are refugees in Angola. If we go to an office people don't recognise our refugee documents," said Kopel, an agricultural engineer who fled political persecution in the DRC. "The refugees from Congo want UNHCR to help them gain local integration."

On the outskirts of Luena, the capital of the remote eastern province of Moxico, a group of some 1,300 Congolese refugees is living in mud and grass huts amid the bush, identical to nearby Angolan villages engaged in the same subsistence agriculture. When they chat among themselves, it is not in the French of the Congo or even the African language they spoke in Katanga; their exchanges are in the local language spoken in the Angolan province.

Asked if they want to be Angolans, they firmly reply that they will always be Congolese. Asked about returning to a homeland most have never seen, they are just as firm about staying permanently in Angola.

By Jack Redden in Viana Camp, Angola